September 14, 2008

Engineers of Nation

Some experts call Walter Benjamin’s 1000-plus page magnum opus The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard, 1999) quite simply one of the greatest 20th century efforts to comprehend “History”. Some even call this thick tome the greatest endeavour of all studies into one of the most fundamental perceptions in 2500 years of world development: a perception arising from awareness of the way the relationship between limited humanity and unlimited time dictates human life. This perception has become extremely influential in shaping world reality over the past three centuries.

Inspired by various sources, particularly Marcel Proust and Martin Heidegger, Rudolf Mrázek does something similar to Benjamin. Mrázek, an expert on modern Southeast Asian history who was born in the Czech Republic and later moved to America, achieves this in his latest book, currently being translated into Indonesian, Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

The Arcades Project excavated bits of debris and ‘re-built’ the vanished 19th century Paris — then the capital of the world — and in so doing, offered fragments of dreams with its interpretations of a continent, an era. Mrázek examines Indonesia at the end of Dutch colonial rule, and from this offers an exciting alternative in studying nation, identity and culture in the 20th century. If The Arcades Project — sabotaged as it was by World War II — appeared more like a vast montage or commentary on a number of books rather than a whole book in itself, Engineers of Happy Land is a book that had enough time to become a fine composition, with a structure and a form of writing that appear deeply considered.


Mrázek organizes the book into six large chapters. The first, titled “Language as Asphalt” is about the technology of moving and expansion, movement and speed. It opens with a story about the Siak expedition which set out on 13 February 1891. The chapter presents various panorama of the separation of people from idyllic and mythical nature; from the bare treading feet making footprints in the mud, to the feet marching forward and the wheels spinning on the asphalt and rails. The feet squishing in the mud were perhaps indeed melting into the lap of nature. But the second lot of feet, separated from and no longer in direct contact with bare earth, were the ones that eventually motivated people to liberate themselves.

Readers of Jacques Lacan will recognise this separation of self from nature as parallel to the Oedipal phase in human development, the last phase emerging when the child faces castration in parting with the mother to become an independent subject. The aim of Siak Expedition, which departed from Padang Pandjang with the cry ‘majoe’, was to survey virgin territory beyond the horizon, about to be exposed by rail cut through to the coast of East of Sumatra. Lead by Dr Jan Ijzermann, the founder of the only technical college in the Indies, the expedition can be seen as part of the workings of capitalism and colonialism to exploit resources in unexplored territory. Yet to Raden Adjeng Kartini and many others who saw their traditional world as stagnant and oppressive, the metal rails and the asphalt cutting through the horizon were paths towards a better world.

The asphalt roads and iron railways were only one of many means of transportation. Another was language. If the asphalt roads and iron rails facilitated the moving of bodies and distribution of goods, language aided the moving of ideas and the distrubution of ideals. Contact with the asphalt and the railway – the most modern and mighty transport of the time – which penetrated far into the horizon, did indeed allow people to move spacially. But it was only language that allowed people to move from the past to the future, moving not physically but temporally, while bringing together fragments of apparently contradictory reality.

Using all kinds of twists, turns and startling leaps, Mrázek draws us to see the necessity of the fight of the Indonesian language to become a good means of transportation, hard and clean. This meant it had to change, and made to grow out of its muddy traces crammed with “words full of atmosphere” and layers of superstition, to become a network of asphalt-road-and-railway-like language built from slices of words and sentences with meanings clear, solid and precise.

Examining the grand endeavour of the shaping of Indonesian as a weapon of opposition and self liberation, and the price paid for these ideals, Mrázek studies various documents that record the thinking and sacrifice of a number of figures. He moves from the journalist Mas Marco Martodikromo, the first modern Indonesian writer, through to Soesilo, a brilliant young intellectual, now forgotten. It was in their hands, among others, that the railway and the modern asphalt roads built by the Dutch became the network of veins and arteries of the nationalist movement. It was on these asphalt roads and iron rails that Dutch words met and collided with Malay words, the source of the Indonesian language. This encounter produced many things besides opposition and liberation.


At the edge of the impulse to move and disperse was the impulse to settle and inhabit. Mrázek’s second chapter is devoted to architectural technology and urban planning. Reading this chapter we can better understand the Nationale Indische Partij’s motto: the Indies is for those who want to live and die there. The first political party in Nusantara stood for equality regardless of skin colour, for social-economic justice, and full independence for the new nation based on mutual cooperation between the natives and the European and other Asian immigrants. It quickly attracted around 6000 Indos (making up almost one third of its membership), particularly those who refused to participate in the increasingly fierce competition with many totok (Dutch born non-mixed blood) Dutch who intended to return to Europe once their careers in the Indies were over.

The second chapter is titled “Towers”, marking nicely the change of subject from constructions spread out horizontally to constructions erected vertically. The chapter opens with quotes and images about towers that soar skywards but which function as anchors, reminding people of their most profound cultural base. There were many such towers in Europe, but not in the Indies. The towers in the Indies signified rather the absence of a sense of anchoring in a place — they were erected to facilitate people moving. In the colony, many people came and stayed not to settle and put down roots, but just to stop by with the hope of returning to Europe. They never really considered the Indies as their true homeland, even though they loved it.

Willem Walraven was a Dutch journalist who wrote about the Dutch in the Indies who lived ‘like flies upon milk’ (p 65). Mrázek teases out Walraven’s writing and other documents to give further explanation about the historical roots of architecture and urban planning in the Indies, created to satisfy the desire for vacational enjoyment, for temporary shelter while the Europeans as a group cut themselves off from the outside world. Because the great number of Europeans who came to Indonesia were transients who lived like hotel guests, architecture developed into technology that strived for the lifestyle of the journey, the transition, to be as pleasant as possible. But at the same time those who settled employed architecture to build houses like fortresses. They turned their luxurious, sturdy homes into self-sufficient units, complete with air conditioning and electricity, and with water towers that freed them from reliance on and interference by the outside world, by the colonial atmosphere.

Alongside architecture, was irrigation. Initially built as a solution to agrarian problems, irrigation later developed as an issue of town planning and urbanisation. In colonial irrigation, it was not only clean water and mud that had to be managed. Semen could also not circulate freely, polluting the purity of the Caucasian race. Racialism, rooted in a kind of fear and suspicion of the other, provided technology with the challenge of how to be overseas, on foreign shores, without having to experience — let alone be affected by and forced to accommodate — this otherness.

If the homes of the Europeans were built to facilitate moving, houses that resisted the growing of roots (other than stuck-on roots and clinging vines), native houses became homes whose roots were lost. At least this is what Ki Hadjar Dewantara saw, as Mrázek quotes: they ‘lost (their) free national spirit (roch kebangsaan merdeka) and (their) own ideas died. [Now, they lived] as if lodging in someone elses’s hotel, [content] just to eat good food and sleep’ (p53). Poor architecture and urban planning was the outcome of a society without enough homogeneity, which lacked the minimal certainties to build something solid, beautiful and open. It is fascinating that with all these anxieties, there were still some groups of Europeans who overcame their narrow prejudices and dreamt of forming a community that would be mixed, modern and free. Hendrik Freek Tillema invented a neologism for this ideal community: Kromoblanda.


The title of chapter three, ‘From Darkness to Light’, is taken from Kartini’s book of letters. This chapter analyzes the technology that assists sight. Optics and mirrors, photography and dactyloscopy, and the spread of electric light all offered not only breadth of sight, but also depth of inquiry. Darkness and obscurity, previously eternal, were now chased out and new perspectives and points of view were ushered in. Mrázek opens his discussion of this desire to see sharply and clearly with an analysis of four books published in the Indies.

The first is In het Rijk van Vulcaan: de uitbarsting can Krakatau enhare gevolgen (In the Empire of Vulcan: The explosion of Krakatoa and its Consequences) by R A van Sandick. From this bestseller, which tells of the darkness and disaster that enveloped Nusantara as a result of the volcanic eruption, Mrázek moves to a different bestseller, Fatima by F Wiggers. This thriller is about the murder of a beautiful divorcée, but Mrázek focuses his attention on the presence of light both in crime deterrence and in this murder investigation. He then takes two other books which were not bestsellers but are considered to echo the approaching age, namely Louis Couperus’s novel De Stille Kracht (The Hidden Force), and Kartini’s book, Door Duisternis tot Licht (From Darkness to Light).

Hopes and obsessions about light took an odd form in Indies white society. The colonial government did build electricity lines. Yet because these were built according to the most perfect and deluxe European standards so as to secure European enjoyment, and were not adapted to the demographic conditions of the colony, the cost of electricity in the Indies was the most expensive in the entire world.

It was not only light that illuminated and empowered human vision, but also binoculars, the telescope and the theodolite. With these optic tools, people in the Indies saw the world and themselves while measuring and mapping them. Sometimes they mapped the world surrealistically, predating the artistic avante garde in Europe itself, like Piet Mondrian’s geometrical paintings. Some people in the Indies, fascinated by the power of optical technology, tried to grasp this power in strange ways. They put on fake spectacles which actually ruined their eyes. Most noteworthy, though, was the combination of optical technology with various recording techniques not only to extend sight, but to strengthen surveillance. The Indies turned into a House of Glass, where the authorities could scrutinize and spy right into the innermost souls of the natives.


The impulse to better see and be seen, and at the same time to make a clearer statement of oneself is the thread of chapter four, ‘Indonesian Dandy’. This chapter presents a fresh look at the way the Dutch Indies population dressed, declared themselves and differentiated themselves from others. Mrázek opens his examination with dolls. A collection of more than 150 native dolls made by ladies of the Netherlands Indies was presented to the Dutch Queen. The collection presented various ethnic and social groups. At the start, the natives, here meaning its artists, had to be assisted in making representations of themselves and their groups. Native artists were expert in making wayang, two-dimensional dolls, but were not used to making realistic three dimensional dolls. The colonials’ assistance in this native representation included miniaturization, inventory and surveillance, followed by Foucauldian discipline of the natives.

From the realism of dolls, Mrázek moves to the reality of European dress, which, apart from affirming their unease in the colony, also affirmed their desire for self differentiation. While the natives dressed casually and appeared sloppy, almost naked, the colonials dressed strictly, formally, in all-white as though ready to fight. They always appeared on the alert to attack, whether from disease or revolt. White dress was dress that created distance and hierarchy.

Fashion, acute time-aware dress sense as a form of self statement, perhaps did indeed have close links with modernity. In the Indies, this dress awareness was tightly linked to the rise of nationalism with its desire to be equal to the whites while at the same time free from their grasp.The dress of early nationalist figures like Mas Marco and the figureheads of the ‘28 group’ like Bung Karno and Sjahrir demonstrate this spirit. With the change in colonial political dynamics and the fluctuations in the nationalist movement, the dress and appearance of its figures also changed. Mrázek follows these changes and presents many stories about bodies, aspirations and declarations of self.


If chapters 3 and 4 are closely tied to technology of visual sense, chapter 5 focuses on technology of auditive sense, to the need to better hear and be heard. This chapter, titled “Let Us Become Radio Mechanics” moves from various matters concerning the dissemination of sound, to wire and wireless forms of communication and nostalgia for silence once the air was crowded and polluted by noise. Early on, there was a kind of need to come close to the outside world, with Europe. The Indies, no matter what, viewed and listened to the West as the source of both its modernity and anxiety. The West, on the other hand, specifically the Netherlands, watched and governed the East, including the Nusantara islands, as both guarantee of glory and source of unease.

Inevitably, the colonial ionosphere became the arena for the battle between colonial and nationalist aspirations. As with the emerging revolutionary spirit, hopes and wounds from the nationalist movement were not only concentrated on the asphalt roads and railways, but also sparked through the wireless. This ionosphere also became a battlefield for the confronting forces in Europe. When the Nazis occupied Holland, arias by famous German composers broadcast on Indies radio were heroically (or was it awkwardly?) no longer sung in German.

Chapter 5 closes with quotes from two nationalist journals, Keboedajaan dan Masjarakat (Culture and Society) and Soeloeh Indonesia Moeda (“Torch of Young Indonesia”). The first quote is a call to become a radio mechanic, so that one can ‘come out in the world’. The second quote predicts the coming revolution of independence where the last imperialist is imagined as ‘visible’ no longer on radio, but truly seen on television as he ‘rolls up his colonial mat.’


The last chapter is titled ‘Only the Deaf Can Hear Well’. This chapter centres around a figure whose life story is clearly not as a statesman or an engineer, but who boomed out modernity and nationalism. He built Indonesian nationalism not with mechanical equipment, but with linguistic tools: with the novel, short stories, essays and letters. Pramoedya Ananta Toer is certainly no engineer in academic terms. He did once dream of becoming a technical engineer, but his education ended while still a student of the Technical Radio School in Surabaya.

In Pram’s lifestory and the events that befell him in exile, Mrázek provides an example of the life of struggle of a nation deeply wounded in gaining its independence. Pram’s greatness does not arise from his position as an innocent victim, with selective memory, stubborn-headed and deaf from a pistol-butt strike. The epilogue invites the reader to ‘leap’ to the present, to Pram who in his twilight years ponders the passing of time; and in so doing threads together all the previous chapters, from colonial consolidation to the emergence of independence. This time, spiritual independence.

Eventually, in the building of nation what was most important was not science and technology, but an independent and dignified spirit. Technology cannot of course engineer human spirit, but it can assist independent spirits, becoming the extension of senses, nerves and memory. Without the independent spirit, technology merely reproduces things that are amusing, and saddening, reflections of the thinking and souls of their users. The sense of insecurity and unease of a large part of the Indies European population produced much architecture, dress, and the odd-looking web of glaring lamplights.

Colonial fear and conservatism, just as the political-cultural fear and conservatism of a large number of people who had already experienced freedom, made the technological potential unable to fully liberate people. The Dutch and Japanese colonizers had flown, had rolled up their mats. Nevertheless, unease, the disappointment and illusions of the native authorities, their nervousness in implementing transformation and their narrowmindedness in running this large-scale organization they called Indonesia Raya, created repression and discrimination, and the fascist-authoritarian behaviour previously fostered by the Dutch and Japanese reappeared in the revolutionary era.


Mrázek structures his book as an engineer builds an integrated circuit: each section supports the others and their connection sparks ideas. Or, like a sensitive poet aware of the power of space between juxtaposed images that appear momentarily without interconnection. From chapter one through to the epilogue, Mrázek presents a myriad of quotes from letters and diaries, cultural essays, political speeches, novels, poetry, song lyrics, paintings, newspaper reports and advertisement clippings, all against a background of time moving linearly from the late 19th century through to mid and late 20th century. Scattering fragments in constellar fashion, this book is a layered texture that presents simultaneously political, cultural and psychological reality in the Netherlands Indies.

Historians who have scrutinized data from Indonesia from the period Mrázek studies know just how much he has not yet touched. However, with this ‘limited’ data, and in a tidy 300 page book, Mrázek has produced a rich and complex work, so much so that it is impossible to summarize without distorting and ruining it. Mrázek — who has already contributed many valuable studies about the nationalist movement and national struggles in Southeast Asia, and in Indonesian translation is known for his study of the lives of Sutan Sjahrir and Tan Malaka — shows how ‘the World’ and ‘History’ are indeed incredibly important parts of Indonesia, of its birth and continuing existence.

Apart from breaking down the walls of time by loosening its intricacies and widening its flow so that the past feels manifest in the present, Engineers also smashes spacial walls and shows that the basic problems of people in Europe were not so different from those of people in Indonesia. If the nationalists in the Indies were anxious about themselves and their past, the colonists were also anxious about themselves, their nation’s bankruptcy as a 17th century superpower, occupied by Napoleon and then trampled by Hitler. Culture, identity and sense of nation in the late colonial era are truly clear reflections of dynamics at a global level. The impulse for freedom and to have the right answers for history, to comprehend appropriately the seige of foreign reality that presents itself as chaos, is the same in all corners of the globe. This is why there is nothing strange in the fact that things then just starting to explode in Europe, the avante-garde movement for instance, were already echoing in Nusantara.

Nationalism is the undercurrent of this book, but beneath it flows a wider current, a current affirming that alongside all kinds of difference that strike the senses, people —West or East, white or brown — truly have many similarities. Human differences are caused by their similarities: the thorns and flowers of that difference blossom because the basic roots of similarity — the urge to live and thrive, to sense and make sense of the world — must respond to different contexts. Once these contexts are altered and made the same, then the similarities that lie in the anthropological bases of human communities become clearly visible.

Acute differences can exile a person, but similarities make it impossible to remain isolated forever. Technology can greatly widen solidarities and paths enabling one to be free of the viscious circle of circular time and to participate once more in the flow of history. Even though the path has appeared almost totally unpredictably, history —together with technology — has unfolded a kind of three dimensional cartography that enables us to build a different, much grander version of Kromoblanda.***

Nirwan Ahmad Arsuka

Rudolf Mrázek. Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in A Colony. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002 xvii + 311 pp. ISBN 0-691-09162-5

The Indonesian version was published in the Indonesian daily, Kompas, on Wednesday 6 April 2005. This English translation by Jennifer Lindsay, was published in International Journal of Asian Studies Vol 3, Issue 01, January 2006

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